Ever since the federal government froze interest on federal student loans and suspended repayment requirements during the pandemic, progressives have been campaigning for canceling some significant part of student loan debt, with proposed numbers ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 per borrower. Some have even advocated for canceling all current student loan debt, amounting to a $1.3 trillion giveback to disproportionately younger, more educated, higher-earning classes.
Republicans are hoping previous borrowers who have paid off their debt, currently struggling Americans without college debt, those with significant noneducational debt, and people who push back on the idea that college is more worthy of support than other things people do after high school will respond with enough fury at Biden and Democrats that they can ride a wave back to power and to the White House. In their responses to last week’s renewed talk about the prospect of student debt cancellation, GOP politicians and pundits are tapping into deep feelings around unfairness in people who do not stand to benefit from one of the largest acts of debt forgiveness in U.S. history.
Those feelings of resentment and anger have merit. It really is unfair to a great number of people, past, present, and future, that current student debt holders would benefit from loan forgiveness while others cannot. But this does not mean Biden shouldn’t proceed. There is a lot more to the wisdom of a piece of public policy than whether or not it is unfair.
On the face of it, canceling any student debt creates a class of winners, and no class of losers. After all, nothing happens to those unaffected, except that their local economies may be stimulated as former college debt holders will likely spend more on goods and services once they are permanently freed of their monthly debt payments. Perhaps there will be some downstream effects, like there will be for any addition to the national debt, like the possibility of higher taxes down the road or taxpayer dollars not being spent on other priorities. It might add to inflation, but most estimates suggest the impact would be relatively modest. But those effects are going to hit people whose debt has been canceled, too. They’re also taxpayers and participants in the economy. With some winners, no losers, and everyone affected similarly by future downstream effects, what is not to like?
But feelings around unfairness run deep in human nature. We know about humans that even if they are unaffected by a policy, or stand to benefit from it, the fact that their neighbor benefits more without having done anything to “deserve” it fuels resentment and spite. We’ve long known, for instance, that in a game of take-it-or-leave it (the ultimatum game), if you and I are two typical people who come across $100 and I propose that you get $20 and I get $80, you’d rather we both get nothing out of spite than to have it so I get more than you. This would make no sense if our only goal were self-interest. Any amount of money is better than no money, so any split should be acceptable. But for humans, feelings around fairness run deeper than even self-interest. We’d sooner starve of spite than see an undeserving equal get more. This is also true of other primates. In a fit of rage, monkeys will reject a passable treat, like a slice of cucumber, if they see their neighbor receiving a coveted treat, like a grape.
Resentment and spite at those who receive undeserved advantage aren’t just primitive emotions we should abandon. All philosophically defensible conceptions of fairness account for them. One way some philosophers understand fairness is as the dishing out of just deserts: giving credit to those who have earned it, and punishment to those who have done wrong by us. This notion of fairness underlies much of criminal sentencing, merit raises, and even the assignment of intellectual property to creators. It seems only fair for money, esteem, benefits, and penalties to follow the degree to which people “deserve” it, and whether or not people deserve things is intimately tied to how we value what people do to and for others. Fairness dictates that a person who writes a hit song deserves a royalty for every stream, or that a perpetrator of a physical assault should get a day in jail for every day their victim is in the hospital. People who have worked harder for the group deserve a bigger slice of the pie, whereas a “free rider” deserves none of it.
The other conception of fairness philosophers propose says that those in authority over us should have a principled stance of treating like cases as like. This is the conception of fairness that accounts for rage at unequal pay given for equal work, or unequal prison sentences handed out by race, class, or geography. It may be completely undeserved for anyone to receive any state punishment for marijuana possession. But that aside, it is even more unfair that a young Black kid in Milwaukee got 10 years for marijuana possession in 2005 while a white hipster in New York in 2020 gets a fix-it ticket. Similarly, both professors John and Jane might be underpaid—one source of unfairness. But it is an additional source of unfairness that professor Jane gets paid 25 percent less than professor John for the same job at the same rank. This conception of fairness, unlike the first, is essentially comparative, requiring you to look at two people or two groups of people to assess whether they are being treated by those in authority as alike when they are in fact alike.
Many people who will not stand to benefit from the proposed student debt cancellation have a claim that it is an unfair policy, operating with either conception of fairness. There is no sense in which current student debt holders deserve to have their loans forgiven but past and future debtholders do not. Unless current student debt holders happen to disproportionately work in professions that benefit their societies, governments, and communities more than past and future holders, this charge of unfairness is valid. There is also no sense in which student debt holders deserve more to have their loans forgiven than medical debt holders, or people who have not debt-financed their educations but have debt-financed other future-looking activities like small businesses. We can argue about whether there is something intrinsically valuable to society in having citizens who receive formal but costly postsecondary education so as to make them especially deserving of debt cancellation. But that kind of value also holds of many people who decide to start small businesses instead of going to college. And it most certainly holds of people who must undergo costly medical procedures to stay alive.
The case for debt cancellation’s unfairness is even stronger when comparing different groups for equal treatment under policy and law. Canceling debt for current student debt holders is treating them favorably only because they happen to inhabit a time when it is politically advantageous for a president to forgive this debt. But that is a failure on the part of authority to treat like cases as like. People who have paid all or a significant portion of their student debt in the past, and people who will be in even bigger debt in the future under a Trump or DeSantis presidency, face unequal treatment only for having taken out their loans at an earlier or later time. There are even people now, like the formerly incarcerated or the undocumented, who have student loan debt that could not be canceled because they do not have federally backed loans. These groups of people have a claim to unfair treatment by the powers that be because they are just like current federal loan holders but aren’t given the same advantage.
And so we can’t dismiss people who complain about unfairness. They are right about that. But desert and fairness comparisons also pull in the opposite direction. It really is unfair to current student debt holders that for most of the 20th century, college education was state-funded, grant-funded, and scholarship-funded, rather than debt-funded by the individual. There is no sense in which students “back then” deserved a college education more than current ones do. The quality of higher education and its impact on future earnings are not much different now than in the past, but the price tag and the resources a young person has at their disposal to pay for it are very different. Most of this is attributable to severe cuts in state funding of higher education at state schools, where most students receive their college education, and grant funding not keeping pace with higher education inflation. The average Pell Grant used to pay for 80 percent of attending a college; now it pays 29 percent. And remember working to help pay for college? The average college student could pay for tuition alone at the cheapest state school through six weekly hours of part-time work in 1970. That student would have to work 28 hours per week for the whole year in 2020—and that doesn’t include the costs of room, board, books, and transportation.
It is also unfair for student debt to have been the paradigm for financing higher education for the generations who experienced the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the greatest rise in housing inflation, wage stagnation, and core inflation in 50 years, during a time when everything else that used to be taken for granted as something that could be work-funded or state-funded now has to be debt-funded: higher education, housing, and even health care.
Public policy isn’t only about assessing fairness by comparing one group who benefits with one group who does not. As unfair as it is for student loan debt to be forgiven but not medical debt, that current debt is forgiven but not past or future debt, that many relatively well-off professionals with college degrees will benefit but fewer less well-off wage workers will—it is also unfair for students today to be forced to debt-finance their education to the degree they must when their parents didn’t have to; for Wall Street companies, but not students and homeowners, to have their debt and contract obligations paid for by taxpayer dollars; and for student debt owners to be unable to use bankruptcy to protect themselves from creditors when other forms of debt can be discharged in that way.
Charges of unfairness around student debt cancellation are legitimate, and not to be written off as selfish or spiteful. But the wisdom or goodness of a policy cannot be reduced to particular comparisons of fairness and unfairness. Every change for the better highlights the unfairness with which we’ve treated people in the past. Every change that benefits someone in a society without also benefiting someone who is in greater need is a bit of unfairness we must contend with. Almost every policy is unfair. But public policy has always been about more than fairness.